Sometimes I hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves along Broadway on a foggy evening. The gas lamps are being lit and Henry James and his brother William are inside the carriage, in quiet contemplation, returning from a house visit. William, with his soul-sickness, pondering man’s deeds and conscience, and Henry, turning over words, seeking to convey the slight ambivalence in a heroine’s tilted face. Or I see, three quarters of a century later, Charles Simic, young, poor, head teeming with unborn poems, heartsick for the old country as he wanders the streets at night in search of a piano bar. Or Maeve Brennan, pale, poised, beautiful, standing at her window watching a trombonist on a roof playing for the stars, or eavesdropping on ladies in hats at a table in Schrafft’s before returning to her own eyrie at The New Yorker. And in the middle of it all, in the middle of this pool of lives, my own young aunts, my uncle, heads teeming too and hearts pining in this slipstream, as the traffic lights change and the world stops for a moment while they all cross.
On wet afternoons in east Galway I would rummage through my mother’s wardrobe and then sit on the floor poring over photographs. I could scarcely believe these handsome men in suits and beautiful still women in satin frocks and jewels were my relatives. They sat around dinner tables, smiling, and I imagined them attending some society ball. It was always night time, it was always New York. I would sigh. These were my aunts and uncles and they bore little resemblance to my mother downstairs or to the other aunts who had stayed behind. Had America changed them? Had America made them this beautiful? Like everyone else, I grew up on American TV and films and music, and replays of those iconic 1960s images—of film stars, assassinations, marches, moon-walks—and I too was under the influence. Some vague ache, a pang, was born in me then. When my mother’s brother, looking a little like a film star himself, came home to visit and spoke of places like Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod and Hyannis Port, the beautiful people in the suits and frocks upstairs all commingled with the place names and the TV images and made me think that we must, somehow, be related to the Kennedys.
As the nineteen-fifties drew to a close my mother’s sister Carmel Hughes, a young nurse recently trained at Dublin‘s Richmond Hospital, flew on a TWA flight from Shannon to New York. Her sisters, in hats and tears, saw her off at the airport. The plane climbed above clouds into the blue upper-earth and Carmel blessed herself and then, remembering that it was the 15th of August, consoled herself with the thought that a plane could not possibly crash on the Feast of the Assumption. When she arrived at Idlewild Airport she was whisked up to Peekskill on the Hudson where her older sister Marion and her family had rented a summer house. Everything was different. The trucks were enormous. The trees were junipers. They paid a toll at a turnpike, just to use the road. There are photos from that vacation—Carmel and Marion standing on either side of their aunt Molly, and in the background, unseen, kids, cars, picnics, sodas, and a sun-drenched world and the sense that the lives being lived and childhoods unfolding beyond the lens were the right ones, the ideal lives.
My mother’s aunt, Molly Fischer, divorced and childless, lived on 183rd Street at the northern end of Manhattan and worked at the Bell Telephone Company. My mother’s older sister Marion was the first of the Hughes girls she invited to New York, several years ahead of Carmel. Marion went to work at Bell too and within a few years was married to a tall handsome Irish-American policeman and settled into an apartment on the floor above her Aunt Molly’s. I picture her in her kitchen at night, her children sleeping, her husband on a late shift at his precinct downtown and on the radio Billie Holiday singing ‘God Bless the Child’ as she sits at her table and cuts coupons from a newspaper, like young wives all over the city.
After the Peekskill trip Carmel moved in with Aunt Molly on 183rd Street and that fall started nursing at the Presbyterian Medical Center, part of the Columbia University Hospital campus. She went to work at the Harkness Pavilion, the private wing of the hospital, and there she nursed Cole Porter, with his amputated leg that he named Geraldine, and Edith Piaf and Rockefeller’s wife, a lovely woman in a wheelchair. Elizabeth Taylor, too, who loved the Irish nurses because they were soft spoken and kind-hearted. Across in the psychiatric wing, behind closed doors, Norma Jean Baker huddled under a sheet.
I think of Carmel in those early months, tuning to the frequency of the city. The accents. The subway. The supermarket aisles. The view out the rear window at night into other apartments and other lives, stacked on top of each other. Black faces on the streets and sirens and cats climbing fire escapes and small magnolia trees in tiny backyards. The loneliness she must have felt leaving the apartment that first morning. The exhaustion at night and the prayers before sleeping. She loved the heat in summer and even the cold of New York winters was bearable. And, anyway, the traffic heated up the streets, and the subway vents blew up jets of warm air and suddenly, there’s Marilyn again, laughing, with her skirt billowing above the air vent as a train rushes by below, cooing ‘When it gets hot like this, you know what I do?’
I wonder if Carmel adjusted her accent a little to be understood. Or frowned for a second at the new words—pocket book and stove and faucet and Fall—and the foods—meatloaf, lima beans, sweet potato, Jell-O, and teabags that floated like dead mice in cups. And milk in cartons and brown paper bags without handles. And clothes that were cheap and lovely and slim-fitting. The abundance of everything. One day she bought five dresses in a dress store in the Bronx. She rode the subway to work. She went to Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Inwood or at the hospital where the altar and the furniture was moved around depending on the faith service. Once she went on a pilgrimage with cousins to a monastery upstate and another time to a wedding in New Jersey. At night she watched The Jack Parr Show and I Love Lucy. Aunt Molly kept another boarder named Fritz, a retired German who had been a machinist in a factory downtown. One night he arrived home with a new transistor radio for Carmel because he’d overheard her admire Aunt Molly’s. The transistor had tiny ear plugs and worked for the next forty years. One spring evening he took her up to Loew’s Paradise Cinema in the Bronx with its Carrera marble fountain and walls covered with murals and hanging vines. She sat into a velvet seat and when she looked up there was a moonlit sky above her, and stars twinkling and clouds passing by.
Carmel moved out of 183rd Street and took an apartment with another nurse not far away at 571 Academy Street, Inwood. Then her brother Gerry, the youngest Hughes, arrived from Ireland. Other nurses’ brothers came out too, and some mornings when the girls came off night duty they’d gather in one of the apartments and a shy boy, newly arrived from Kerry or Mayo or Donegal, would fry eggs and waffles on the stove and there’d be banter and laughter and flirtation. I imagine their lives were measured, not much given to excess—the counterculture of the 60s largely passed them by. At weekends they dressed up and went downtown to the Irish dances at City Center—the big ballroom on West 55th Street—or to the Jaeger House dancehall on 85th Street, or to a céilí up at Gaelic Park in the Bronx. Once or twice they went to Coney Island. I see them lying on the sand, their Irish skin burning, their fair hair bleaching in the New York sun. Gazing up at that open sky with the city behind them and clear uncomplicated lives before them and no mother or father nearby to cast an eye, and how this must have felt, this liberation, after the rules and social taboos of the country they’d left behind.
Gerry lost his mother when he was eight months old. A half-orphan, he began life then. One night at City Center he met a raven-haired beauty from Cavan. Within a few years they were married with a dynamic new business and a glittering lifestyle. They bought a house on Long Island with a lawn and a pool and big American cars floating by on the street outside, and not far away the beaches at the Hamptons. Childless, they flew to South America and adopted two beautiful little girls and, later, a boy. All through the Seventies these American cousins arrived on Kodacolour photos every Christmas, beaming out from their idyllic lives. Gerry’s business flourished. His Fourth of July garden parties were legendary, with jazz bands and caterers and friends and family milling around the pool. The dream, the dream, was unfurled.
By the mid-nineteen-sixties Marion and her husband and by then three kids had moved to Paramus, New Jersey. When I first heard this town’s name, I misheard or mistook it for ‘Parnassus’. And I know there’s an Ithaca and a Sparta and a Troy upstate, and somewhere in America a Delphi Falls. After Parnassus, for Marion, came the enchantingly named Pearl River and a pretty house with windows in the eaves and sprinklers in the lawn and tragedy within its walls. One night while her husband and children slept she got up. Perhaps it was a slipper on the landing or a child’s toy or just a fated twist of ankle but she tumbled and lay at the bottom of the stairs until dawn broke and someone heard her moans. The beautiful girl with the beautiful life lay in a coma for months and when she woke she was paralysed from the neck down. She was thirty-eight. For the next thirty-two years she lived in a wheelchair. Her husband and children realigned their lives, found new bearings, and endured.
Carmel had already left New York and settled back in Galway. By the nineteen-nineties, ominous clouds were gathering over Long Island and Gerry’s dream began to unravel, and the business, the home, the lifestyle all came tumbling. He returned too, forty years after he first left and for a decade lived a quiet modest life in a much changed Ireland. Occasionally, news broke through from Long Island: the marriage of a daughter, the death of a son.
On July 1st this year he lay dying in a Galway hospital. I have walked the streets of Inwood searching for traces, feeling for footsteps and far-off echoes of this uncle, these aunts. I picture him, a young man, blond, strolling down to City Center on a summer’s evening. With not a thought for the fields or the farmwork or the father he left behind. The heat of the sidewalk rising to meet him, his sleeves rolled, his spirits high. He might have passed girls in their summer dresses, or ad men in light suits coasting on Madison Avenue, or a James Salter character, in from her glass house on the Hudson for foie gras or hastening to meet a lover uptown. I don’t think his heart was heavy, I don’t think he was homesick. I think he was happy to be away from east Galway with its damp fields and ditches and limestone walls and an Ireland that stifled the spirit. I think that he, more than his sisters, saw the whole of the world spread out before him on those streets. I think that he was smiling all the time, that sun-kissed, golden-boy smile, as the sun fell on him and the notes of a saxophone drifted out an open window. There was something full-hearted and expansive required for that life, and maybe it cannot be tamped down in some people. Maybe it burns, maybe the wax melts at the shoulder blades; maybe the city itself bestows something that charms and changes and carries us all away so that it becomes almost unimaginable, almost unbearable, to touch down on the ordinary earth again.
Gerry was buried on the fourth of July in a grave just yards from his mother’s, under a sun that was more American than Irish. I do not know if the dreams came undone for this man or these women. I am not even certain they’d been dreaming. I think that they went along, mostly, placing one foot in front of the other, making each step matter, day after day. I know now that when they smiled out of those photos in their satin frocks and suits they were more likely to be heading up to the Clipper Carlton Showband at Gaelic Park than to any society dinner on the Upper West Side. Each of them, Marion in her wheelchair, Carmel in her bungalow and later Gerry in his private grief in rural Galway, had to recalibrate their lives according to the fate that befell them. Their lives seem to me, now, enormously poignant, but I know they were enormously ordinary too, lives no more graced or marred than lives lived anywhere. Carmel, in her New York stories, does not imbue that place or those times with the aura to which I am prone, and yet something of the city still clings to her, in her poise and precision and refinement, in the way she sometimes forgets herself and briefly reverts back to the New York words again. I think of her now recalling those years, remembering her reflection in the window of a subway train late at night, or walking home with five dresses in a bag, catching herself for a moment in that concentrated life.
When I visit New York now, I am, for the first days, tremulous. I float along sidewalks, looking up, dizzy with light and hope and the charge of the city. Its vibrations enter my bloodstream and take hold, making everything intensely private, intensely felt. I cross thresholds—bookstores, museums, churches, parks—with song lines and poems and people in my head. I hear the peal of bells from St Patrick’s and picture the feet of emigrants hurrying down Fifth Avenue on Sunday mornings. I sit at a long table in the reading room of the New York Public Library and rays of sunlight fall slantways through the high windows onto my head and my hands. I feel presences, real and imagined—and I press them all into being and suddenly the moment is numinous. I walk out under trees in Bryant Park, and feel the city and the past all whisper to me. I want to reach back then and bend down and pick up that slipper and change that bank balance back to black again, and oh, reach up and pluck two planes from the sky. I say to myself, Take care, take care or you’ll step under a bus. But I never do. I think that the feet remember. I think that the streets and the avenues have carved a path into my bones, and a neural grid of the city has been laid over my own. Away from here, in my Dublin life, I stumble on reminders—The New Yorker listings, a late-night glimpse of Serpico, the word ‘flatiron’ on a page—and the longing resurfaces, the ache for a place I could not possibly call home. Yet I dream. I dream of a little clapboard house in Brooklyn, on a street with a slight incline and a small back yard with a tree. I hear the cries of children in summer riding bikes along cracked pavements and then I ride the subway into the city, trundling along under hot streets, into the heart of Manhattan
I met a poet at a bus stop one day. He was from Hell’s Kitchen but an ancestor came from Mayo. Do you read poetry? he asked. He’d been to hear Charles Simic and Louise Glück at the Cooper Union the night before. We got on the bus. He’d gone to Vietnam in 1968. For a year he worked the Guinness boat from Dublin to Liverpool. He made cabinets in the Coombe and fitted out the Georgian houses in Merrion Square. Do you know Clanbrassil Street? he asked. When he got off the bus I looked back and saw him stand, light a cigar and then amble down the street. For a moment I was transfixed. In his back I saw Simic again, and Molly Fischer too, shuffling along with her large frame slightly stooped, and Maeve Brennan, like an angel, coaxing pigeons, and Carmel Hughes in her nurse’s cape and eager face, and Gerry, blue-eyed, optimistic, hurtling towards his own destiny—all in the whirlpool, such lives as these, pulsating, radiating, floating across an intersection as the traffic stops and the world stops and hovers and flickers for a moment in a place for which few words are ample.
I listen to Carmel these days. She tells me stories. Like she’s reporting back from my own dream world. As she speaks I see it all. I see it all, the people, the place, the pang, and I long to keep it.